Lords’ debate on protecting Europe against large-scale cyber-attacks

There was a two hour debate in the House of Lords this evening on a Lords’ Select Committee report on protecting Europe against large-scale cyber-attacks.

My contribution (which followed an excellent maiden speech from Lord John Reid) was as follows:

“My Lords, it is an enormous pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Reid of Cardowan and his maiden speech, in the course of which he paid a very graceful tribute to his successor as Member of Parliament. He told us that she had already attained the ripe old age of 25. I am informed that the noble Lord started his political career some considerable period earlier than 25. I am told, in fact, that he led his first strike at the age of about 14 and a half when he was still at school and was objecting to the practice of the fairly disciplinarian head teacher that the children should be kept outside, irrespective of the weather, until the school started. He called a strike of his fellow pupils on the basis that, if they were not allowed in until nine o’clock, they would not go in after nine o’clock. My understanding is that he was successful in that, which demonstrates a robustness and forceful nature, which we have seen in this afternoon’s speech. However, we have also seen the noble Lord’s other side—his erudite and thoughtful nature. I understand that it is that side that comes in particularly useful in his latter-day role as chairman of Celtic Football Club, where erudition and thoughtfulness is particularly important.

The noble Lord has had 10 years in very senior roles as a member of Her Majesty’s Government. He was in the last Government what I think should be described as a “big beast”, with the emphasis on some occasions on the word “beast”. I worked closely with him in a number of those roles, in particular in his time at the Home Office. One of the achievements of that period is a lasting one: the creation of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism. This country will learn to realise how significant and important it has been, and that is down to my noble friend. His contribution today has demonstrated the qualities of robustness and erudition that we will all expect to hear much more of in the time ahead. We do indeed look forward to many further contributions of a similar nature.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, for his introduction of the report and his work, and the work of his colleagues, in pulling together the report which we have had. It is a very important Select Committee report, and I had the privilege of sitting in on a couple of the evidence sessions to hear the discussion. As the noble Lord pointed out, we are having quite a timely debate following the reported comments of the director of GCHQ in the past few days. He has talked about the significant level of attacks on government systems, many of them precisely and deliberately targeted at those systems. The debate is unfortunately not quite as timely as it might be in that we do not yet have the benefits of the results of the security and defence review or the comprehensive spending review. We will have to wait a few more days for those. However, I hope that that fact of timing will not prevent the Minister from providing us with some more information on how the Government’s thinking on these matters is developing.

I have high hopes for the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Jones, because I am aware of her continued personal interest in matters of cybersecurity and information assurance. I have attended so many meetings over the past few years which she has been at, and which have discussed these matters, that I know that she takes these matters extremely seriously. That includes, for example, her chairing for a period the Information Assurance Advisory Council, which brought—and continues to bring—together industry, academia and government to talk about these matters. We have high expectations of the Minister in what is going to be done in this field over the months and years to come, and I am sure that she will not disappoint us today in her response to this debate.

It is important that we recognise several elements in the issues around cyberattacks and the matters which this report has covered. A few years ago, a lot of these matters were dismissed as the actions of teenage cyberjuvenile delinquents who were merely interested in getting into systems because they were there and, perhaps, in gaining some element of self-respect by leaving their mark on those systems, proving that they had been there—a sort of petty vandalism, expressed in the cyberworld as opposed to the physical world that other juvenile delinquents might be engaged in. Yet we have to recognise that those juvenile delinquents have grown up. Some have grown out of those issues, but others have started their own criminal enterprises; some have been bought up by much more organised and serious criminal enterprises; some have, no doubt, become fundamentalist in their religious views; others are being employed by nation states. We have to recognise the scale and effectiveness of the targeting that can now be done.

We therefore have not only the continued action and vandalism of the juvenile delinquents but the issues around cyberactivism, of people trying to make a political or other point by mass cyberaction. We have small-scale crime, but more significantly we have an enormous wave of organised crime using the techniques that are now possible through the internet. That is now having an effect. We also have otherwise respectable businesses making use of these criminal techniques to inform themselves of their competitors’ activities and, indeed, trying to obtain intellectual property. Then we have state-sponsored activity, some of it at the commercial end but some of it much more about creating the opportunity to attack other nation states if that is necessary. The noble Lord, Lord Jopling, has talked about what happened to Estonia, and numerous incidents are now reported of what are perceived as being—although this is not necessarily the case—attacks sponsored by one nation state against another in this sphere. We have yet to see a serous terrorist act perpetrated through these means, but it is only a matter of time before terrorists also make use of these techniques as an adjunct, as part or as the main focus of their attack.

We therefore have to examine the issues raised by this report in a number of ways. First, while they might not quite meet the definition that the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, gave of a cyberattack, the activities of serious and organised criminality in terms of fraud and all the things that it is trying to do are of such a scale that Governments—national, Europe-wide and worldwide—should be taking them seriously and acting on them.

Secondly, we have to look at the scale of what is happening in terms of corporate raiders, intellectual property theft and the potential for industrial disruption. Again, some of this is by organised crime, but my understanding is that a significant proportion of that is carried out by nation states or at their behest.

Thirdly, and this is particularly important in terms of the responsibilities of our Government and the Minister, there are issues around the attacks on, and the vulnerability of, our own critical national infrastructure. Some of those attacks on government systems are about espionage, but some of them are about creating the potential for disruption.

I have a number of questions or issues that I hope the Minister will be able to respond to. The first relates to the sheer volume of criminality and whether as a nation we are equipping ourselves to keep up with those who are trying to defraud our citizens or otherwise cause problems. There has been a history of law-enforcement initiatives taken in this field. The National Hi-Tech Crime Unit, which was very successful, appeared to disappear when its responsibilities were taken over by the Serious Organised Crime Agency, so much so that the police had to set up a new unit, the Police Central E-Crime Unit—I declare an interest as someone who has been closely involved in that, as a member of both the Metropolitan Police Authority and the ACPO board that oversees it—which has had a series of successes, like the arrests a few months ago of the five men and one woman engaged in stealing the details of more than 10,000 bank accounts and allegedly netting themselves more than £3 million as a consequence. That unit, working with the private sector and levering in resources from it, has been remarkably successful, but it is still new and fairly fragile.

I understand that there are rumours that this unit should be subsumed into the proposed new national crime agency. I have no objection to the new agency, once it is established, maybe taking on this responsibility; it must certainly have a capacity to deal with these matters. My concern is that if we move too quickly to that process, the idea of subsuming a body that is only just beginning to work into a new body that will be going through its own birthing pains is not necessarily sensible. We have had evidence from the outgoing chief executive of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre about the fragility of those structures and the private sector funding of them. He suggested that Microsoft may propose to withdraw the resources that it puts into CEOP because of the uncertainty about its future. I hope that the Minister will give us some assurances today about the continued budget to enable the police to play their role in fighting e-crime, that we will not see the fragile new arrangements subsumed too early into a national crime agency and that there will at least be time for any national crime agency to be established, and to establish itself, before such a change takes place—if that is what happens.

The second issue was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, when he talked about the so-called Stuxnet attacks on the control systems of the Iranian nuclear power programme. I have been concerned, as have several noble Lords and others, about the vulnerability of SCADA systems to attack. Is the noble Baroness personally satisfied that enough is being done at present to protect such control systems for our critical national infrastructure, against both the sort of electronic attack that the Stuxnet attack seems to have been and the electromagnetic pulse attacks that the noble Lord, Lord Reid, referred to? He made the valid point that exploding a nuclear device might be rather a visible way of producing an electromagnetic pulse. However, there are regular cycles of sunspot activity that could produce the same sort of effects. The issue of protection remains, whether it is an external attack, a natural event or something triggered electronically.

I would also like the noble Baroness to tell us whether enough is being done to protect the intellectual property of the United Kingdom against electronic attacks. In this context, is she satisfied that the major contractors that provide services to government departments are themselves adequately protected against this sort of penetration? I have heard stories about some of those major contractors being heavily penetrated in possibly state-sponsored incidents. If that is the case it is extremely serious. It is important that the noble Baroness should give us her assurance as to what can be done.

Finally, I hope the noble Baroness will give us, in the course of her remarks, a route map that tells us who is in charge of the various key elements of this matter. Who is in charge of setting the standards of security for our critical national infrastructure? Who is responsible for attributing where attacks are coming from? Who is responsible for managing resilience and recovery, should an attack take place? Who is responsible, if necessary, for retaliation or taking out those who are carrying out these attacks?”

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